The High-Risk, High-Reward Conventions

9 years ago

All you hear about modern political conventions these days is that they're designed to be more predictable than meatloaf on Thursdays. And yet, this year, everyone seems to be trying their darnedest to throw them into suspense.

At the DNC, the question of the summer was, "What will the Clintons do?" The answer turned out to be, "make virtually no attempt to silence the chatter about disunity Hillary's loss had sown until halfway through the convention." In the end, though somewhat grudgingly, the Clintons and the Obamas met in the middle rhetorically, as Obama used his singular talent for rhetoric to make up for the underwhelming vibe of the rest of the week.

With the Clintons to contend with, Obama didn't shy away from a few surprises of his own. It was at his behest that the DNC moved his acceptance speech to Invesco Field, an unprecedented move that raised expectations and risks. He debuted upon a columned stage, in what many perceived as a doubling down on hubris. It could have rained. He could have fallen flat in comparison with his overwhelming staging. He could have creeped people out by too actively encouraging open Obama-worship.

In the end, he pulled it out, delivering a stirring address on a historic day in an impressive setting, and effectively wiped out the negative buzz of the week. Whether the high-risk move garnered a high reward is hard to gauge given that McCain wiped out news of the speech with a high-risk, high-reward pick for VP in Sarah Palin.

Going into the Republican National Convention, Mother Nature poses the biggest risk for the entire nation. Hurricane Gustav seems to be chugging straight into the open arms of the Gulf of Mexico, which has Louisiana readying and the rest of us worrying. Let's just all pray that our friends in the Gulf are spared another natural disaster.

The storm poses more trivial political risks for both parties. For Republicans, of course, the idea that a devastating storm in the Gulf, particularly endangering New Orleans, would remind voters of the failures of the Hurricane Katrina response, which have become inextricably linked with George Bush and the current Republican leadership. For Democrats, there's the risk they they might let on they're just a little too excited about the prospect of death and destruction down South, purely as a political tool.

National Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Don Fowler and Rep. John SPratt (D-S.C.) have already stepped in it by getting caught on tape on their way back from Denver giggling over the fact that "it just demonstrates God's on our side."

Republicans may be trying something unprecedented of their own-- turning the convention into a Red Cross service project.

And, beyond Gustav, McCain did his best to prevent the convention being a snorefest by naming a virtual political unknown quantity as his vice president. Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska has a reputation as a solid conservative and a reformer, but is not well-known on a national level.

She was an unexpected choice. The mom of five has been governor of Alaska since 2006, and Democrats have jumped at the idea that her short stint as governor takes the sting out of McCain's "Not Ready to Lead" attacks on Barack Obama's scant experience. Veteran Republican operatives have also expressed worry over the pick, preferring that McCain had gone with a safer pick that reinforces the experience ticket instead of trying to take on Obama with a "Maverick" ticket.

But much like Obama's Invesco speech, Palin is the embodiment of high risk, high reward. She has given the base a long-awaited reason to get excited and some Hillary voters a reason to reconsider McCain. It is a rare figure that can appeal to fiscal cons, social cons, and independents at the same time, and McCain thought the benefit outweighed the possible costs.

I think he may be right. It's easy to argue against attacks on Palin's experience by reiterating that Obama has just as little if not less, and he's topping the Democratic ticket. Palin's experience is also executive, which is a qualification for President the Democratic ticket lacks.

What she lacks in experience, she may make up in star power, if her announcement speech is any indication. The crowd in Dayton was more excited than any McCain crowd has ever been. I've been getting IMs and e-mails from formerly unenthused conservative friends who are now opening their wallets to McCain for the first time, and ordering up bumper stickers by the dozen.

The jury is certainly out on whether she can appeal to a significant number of Hillary voters. There are those who simply will not vote Republican because both McCain and Palin are more conservative than they can countenance. There are those who rightly argue that Hillary voters will not simply fall in line because Palin is a woman.

But Palin is a warm figure with a compelling story. She makes a tough target for renowned attack dog Joe Biden, and an Obama campaign that must tread lightly when taking on a woman candidate. Team Obama has already misstepped in that respect, attacking the governor condescendingly as the "former mayor of a town of 9,000," before Obama and Biden walked it back by releasing a congratulatory statement later in the day.

Palin's speech at the convention will be more important than most VP speeches in recent memory, and the VP debate will face similar scrutiny. It's high-risk, high-reward convention time, and I'll be there reporting for BlogHer.

Lucky for you guys watching, it may be anything but predictable.

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